No contest

Having recently watched the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty, a film whose production is apparently predicated on a chemistry between the leads that never materialises, it was instructive to watch To Have and Have Not, in which Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s mythical partnership was initiated. Of course it’s almost impossible now to distinguish the ‘actual’ chemistry from the Hollywood mythos in which their attraction is one of the central narrative threads: how can anyone see them on screen and see, not Bogart and Bacall, but the 44 year-old actor and the 19 year-old model? Their own legends have eclipsed them, their visual imprints standing so strongly for all the meanings that history has attached to them that they no longer signify the human beings that also bore those faces. But Bogart certainly gives every impression that he is utterly mesmerised by his co-star, and Bacall has that perfected self-possession that is the privilege of those too young to know their own frailty.

Her whip-like sass was referred to as ‘insolence’ by one contemporary reviewer (a quality he clearly found exciting), and was interpreted as a masculine trait—her voice was deep, her demeanour independent and stylishly poised, and she eschewed the wholesome innocence usually called for in the public performance of femininity. All of which is to say that her part in To Have and Have Not was realised as though she were the protagonist of her own story, for all that the script attempts to subjugate her to Bogart’s whims. Her frankness was positively encouraged by Bogart and director Howard Hawks, who would begin each day’s shooting with a script conference in which the screenplay was embellished with humour and innuendo. The film is not a trove of common parlance, as Casablanca is, but one line stands out both for its fame and for its barely-veiled sexual import. ‘You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.’

Incredibly, the scene in which this line was delivered was Bacall’s screen-test, which the studio insisted Hawks integrate into the final cut. Whether she’d been seriously studying acting before she got this shot at the screen, I don’t know—she was plucked from relative obscurity because Hawks’s wife saw her on the cover of a magazine and pointed her out to him—but it’s not really acting per se that she does here. She’s not realising a character so much as she is demonstrating a way of being, a personal style in which her face and front put the world on notice that she is immune to its seductions and blandishments. Hers is a performance of pure cool, in which she calmly out-Bogarts Bogart. Her cool is purposeful, like African-American cool—it’s a form of resistance, by which she seizes and defends some of the social capital that would otherwise be denied her by virtue of her gender. This resistance was both threatening and impossibly attractive to the contemporary male gaze.

So dazzling is her presence on the screen that it’s quite easy to forget about the rest of the movie, and even her immensely stylish co-star. But without a strong narrative scaffold, all this poise and sass would be wasted. In fact, I imagine it was Hawks’s directing method that enabled her to bring so much strength to her part. My impression of Hawks is that he directed in much the same way as a theatre director, keeping his focus largely on the cast and its performances. I don’t know exactly how much the editors of this era were at the disposal of directors, and how much they were the studio’s creatures, but I think its easy enough to see the difference between a director like Hawks, and one who was thinking more carefully about shots and cuts, like John Huston, or like Michael Curtiz who directed Casablanca.

This difference makes To Have and Have Not look rather dated to my eyes, in a way that Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon don’t, despite their similar vintage. Too many scenes in this movie fade slowly to black after the conclusion of the dialogue, and the camera-work often seems lacking in dynamism. Minor characters are wooden, and the conventional Hollywood power-dynamics between them are hard to swallow—Bogart slapping his alcoholic friend around the face for his own good, for example. The story is fundamentally derivative of Casablanca, despite being adapted from an Ernest Hemingway novel (which it apparently resembles hardly at all), and the screenplay, which given that it was worked on by William Faulkner makes it the only movie in history to have two Nobel Prize-winners involved in its writing, is workmanlike at best. All of this sits on one side of the scales, and on the other sits… Bogart and Bacall. There’s not really any contest.

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